Signing Out: A plea for euthanasia

From an appeal for active euthanasia to the death of the chawl, Sumira Roy’s documentary is about life and death of people and places. A conversation with the director ahead of the film’s screening.
A poster of the documentary.
A poster of the documentary.

Achawl near Marine Drive is bustling with life. People are busy going about their daily business and children are engrossed in play. Amidst all the loud talk and laughter that is rushing into their cramped tenement, Iravati and Narayan Lavate are thinking about death. Iravati, a former school principal and Narayan, who worked in the state transport department, have been preoccupied with it for a long time now. So much so that they made a plea to the President of India in 2018 for active euthanasia or “assisted suicide”.

There is no strain of despair or desperation attached to the old couple’s death wish. What marks 93-year-old Narayan’s and 83-year-old Iravati’s yearning is a “clear-sightedness” about what they want and a realisation that had come to them, “even before old age”—an insistence on dying with dignity when they choose to. They want to move out from their narrow room in life, all dues paid.

Sumira Roy, a Mumbai-based filmmaker, was struck by the couple’s insistence on the state allowing them a legitimate path to death. Unlike the multitude of media personnel that swarmed the couple’s household after their appeal for euthanasia, wanting to know “what they would do next”, Roy wanted to know them better as people and try to understand why they were fighting for their right to die.

Roy’s 2023 documentary about the couple, Bhangaar, premiered in August at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala (IDSFFK) in the long competition section. Shot over a period of three years, the film is an intimate look at the couple’s lives, their “inner worlds and interior struggles”. “The film is not about telling but about feeling”, states Roy.

Life is Elsewhere  
Bhangaar, with its lively pace and bright colours, is as much about life as it is about death, perhaps more. Roy describes the film as a documentary with the “texture, tonality, and energy” of fiction. “I wanted to contrast the claustrophobic interiors of their room with the vibrancy of life that was at their doorstep”, says Roy. Mama and Mami, as she affectionately calls the couple, took her in, even at a time when they were exhausted by all the media attention.

Roy, who had worked in advertising for years, turned to filmmaking with Last Days, Last Shot (2017), a film set in Varanasi. It follows the lives of two characters—a Dom who makes a living by photographing dead bodies for insurance identification and an artist who runs a Japanese lodge—and their engagement with ideas of death and liberation. “I have always been obsessed with death, but in a healthy way”, she laughs.

The topic had never occurred to Roy as bleak. She talks enthusiastically about how Eastern cultures have always given due thought to the act of death, from elaborate mentions in the Upanishads to the mythologies in Shintoism. The death of her beloved spaniel, Daniel, when she was little led her to ask questions about the phenomenon. “I wondered what happened to him, where he went”. She was deeply impressed as a filmmaker by Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Kurosawa’s Ikiru, both movies on the subject of death.

Voluntary Departure
Bhangaar, Roy feels, however, is more about ageing than anything else, as the ability to live a heightened life is on the ebb. “The movie is fundamentally about the invisibility of the elderly in society. It is about the feeling of obsolescence ageing brings”. She says that Mama and Mami echoed, in their position, the example of Godard, the pioneering French filmmaker, who first made known his decision of a “voluntary departure” and died by “assisted suicide” in 2022. “We never listen to old people, and always make decisions for them”, says Roy.

Through the film, Roy wanted to keep a record of how the world is changing around us. “Chawls are also dying”, she says of the unique Mumbai middle-class two-to-four storeyed buildings with community living that accommodate thousands, including the Lavate s, and are slated for demolition and renovation.“They have a characteristically porous nature, with the public spaces blending with the private ones. They host a different way of life”, she says. The chawl had its own challenges for the filmmaker, having to shoot in its cramped spaces that the couple rarely left. Bhangaar is a meditation on old age and death, both of people and places. But what weaves it all together, as Roy says, is “the ongoingness of life”.

Bhangaar is screening today at 6.30pm at CD Deshmukh Auditorium, IIC

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